Reviewing the literature

(an informal account by David Geelan)

Conceptually, you're trying to locate yourself on three 'maps'1: the empirical, theoretical and methodological maps.

Empirical: what is already known about my topic? What have been the results of prior studies?

Theoretical: what theoretical framework is appropriate to my work, and why, and why are other, adjacent theoretical frameworks less appropriate?2

Methodological: what methods have been used to study this problem in the past? What method(s) will I choose and which adjacent methods will I reject, and why?

In terms of the simple mechanics:

  1. These days I always use Google Scholar for the initial search. Specific search engines and databases used to be better, but in my experience now Scholar has everything they have and more, and a much more powerful set of search tools. Once I've found the papers, then I go to the Griffith Library web site to actually get access to the full versions of the papers3.
  2. In terms of search queries, the rule of thumb is that more terms lead to fewer results and vice versa. If you put in five words and get too many results to be manageable, go to seven or eight, if you get too few, cut it back to three. Use synonyms for some of your terms - someone might have said it slightly differently.
  3. For a formal literature review article (I've written a couple, often with collaborators), you need to actually state the methods you used - which databases were searched, with which search terms, how many results were returned and what criteria were used to include and exclude papers. This is less crucial in a thesis or assignment, but something to be aware of.
  4. Looking at the papers your paper of interest cites allows you to go 'backward' in time and find the sources of the ideas, and relevant seminal papers in the field.
  5. Google Scholar has a 'cited by…' link in the searches, so it's possible to search 'forward' in time to the papers that have cited the paper of interest. That gets you into the more recent work, and allows you to find any critiques of the ideas presented.
  6. You're looking for enough comprehensiveness for your purposes. You don't want to miss a key paper in the field. For a thesis you want to have all the key papers, for an assignment you may only need a few papers: but you want the best and most relevant ones.
  7. There's a set of skills in being able to quickly scan over the results you get from a search engine and pick the 2-3 on a page that are likely to be relevant to your needs, and reject the others. To some extent that's about having a clear sense of your topic in your head to compare the blurbs to, and it's also a matter of practice and experience. You'll get better at it the more times you do it.
  8. Personally I don't use a reference manager like Papers or Endnote, but you might find it a useful way to keep track of the things you read and might want to cite. I guess I'd suggest weighing up the cost-benefit ratio, not so much on terms of money as time: will the time taken setting up your database pay off in speed later? For me, almost 20 years in, I still haven't been convinced.

(side note - if you know who will be reading your paper/thesis - examiners or reviewers or markers - it always makes sense to add their name to your search query and find out what, if anything, they have published in the field)

I hope this is helpful - it's a personal account drawn from experience, not the result of any particular qualifications or studies. It's also worth remembering that librarians do have those qualifications, and are your friends!

Have fun with it! Get excited about the ideas, envisage the maps, plant your flag!

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